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Running Back U. - Top All-Around RB Schools
Eddie George, Maurice Clarett, & Archie Griffin
Eddie George, Maurice Clarett, & Archie Griffin
Posted Apr 30, 2009

What schools are the best when it comes to cranking out great running backs based on a combination of college production and pro talent? Richard Cirminiello gives his take on the top 15 Running Back Universities over the last 40 years.

Running Back U. - Combined Version

The Running Back Factories
(Part College , Part Pro)

By Richard Cirminiello | Pete Fiutak version of RB U. (College Only)
Richard Cirminiello version of QB U. |
Pete Fiutak version of QB U.

Tailback, halfback, I-back, fullback.  You can call him many things, but just be sure to call his number early and often on Saturday afternoons. 

The back, that pile moving, daylight seeking, goal-line leaping athlete, he's the one who can control the tempo of a game and demoralize a winded defense. String enough quality ones together, and your school could earn that mythical moniker, Running Back U.  

Running Back U. is not about
brief spurts of excellence. It’s about sustained consistency to go along with those moments of greatness. Earn the name and your school has participated in a marathon, not a sprint.  Quality and quantity are prerequisites, and it can certainly help if your big men on campus went on to command big paychecks in the pros.

For this highly subjective exercise, only college players from 1970 have been considered. Keep that in mind while you’re feverishly searching for Ernie Davis or Billy Cannon. The timeframe could have easily been longer, but either way, the objective was to draw a distinct line of demarcation between the modern era of college football and a time when the game, the players and the schools were dramatically different than they are today. 

Something about apples and oranges comes to mind. Go deep enough into the annals and you might be compelled to champion schools, which are no longer relevant to this conversation. Raise your hand if you’re ready to debate the virtues of  backs such as George McAfee, Glenn Davis or Ollie Matson, former first round draft choices from Duke, Army and San Francisco, respectively.
While the emphasis here is on collegiate results, pro performance has clearly been factored into the inexact equation.  As it should be. Leaving it out would be to suggest Priest
Holmes and Terrell Davis have no relevance to the discussion because they didn’t blossom into stars until they reached the NFL. Huh? That’s like saying the Wharton School of Business sucks because most graduates don’t get a corner office until they reach their 30s.   

Like most opinion-based responses, there is no right answer to the question of who truly deserves to be dubbed Running Back U.  Just plenty of different answers, which makes the subject so deliciously appetizing.   

1. Ohio State

The Flag-Bearer –
Eddie George
The Ensemble –
Archie Griffin, Keith Byars, Beanie Wells, Antonio Pittman, Pete Johnson, Robert Smith, Jim Otis, John Brockington, Tim Spencer, Pepe Pearson, Raymont Harris, Michael Wiley, Calvin Murray, Maurice Clarett, Leo Hayden, Ron Springs, Vince Workman and Jonathan Wells

Consistency, dotted with periodic episodes of brilliance, is what separates the Buckeyes from every other NCAA program seeking the title of Running Back U.  And unlike most other schools, Ohio State backs haven’t endured any serious dry spells.  In the 1970s there was two-time Heisman winner Griffin and pile-driving fullbacks Otis, Brockington and Johnson. The 1980s gave us Spencer and Byars, a Heisman runner-up Byars. The 1990s were highlighted by Eddie George and his 1,927-yard Heisman season. After a stellar rookie season, Clarett looked poised to carry the torch early in the 21st century torch before his life spun out of control.        

Since 1969, 16 different Buckeyes have rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a college season.  Six hit the milestone in the NFL. Again, a model of consistency. From 1969-1981, no one was better than USC. Not even close. However, since that time, the Trojans slipped until Reggie Bush came along, and the Buckeyes have stayed the course, passing by at some point in the late 1990s. With both teams recruiting so well in recent years, expect them to jockey for the pole position for the foreseeable future.

2. USC

The Flag-Bearer –
O.J. Simpson
The Ensemble –
Marcus Allen, Charles White, Ricky Bell, Anthony Davis, Clarence Davis, Reggie Bush, Sam Cunningham, Mosi Tatupu, LenDale White, Ricky Ervins, Justin Fargas, Chad Morton, Sultan McCoullough and Lynn Cain

Until the 2003 arrival of Bush, it had been ages since USC had the kind of dynamic, Heisman-contending back, who enhanced the school’s reputation as Tailback U. To be specific, it was 1981 when Marcus Allen lit up the Pac-10 and became the first player in NCAA history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Of course, Allen was preceded by a parade of all-time greats, like Simpson, Anthony Davis, Bell and White, each of whom was a first-team All-American. Since 1981, the school had pinned its hopes on a menagerie of mediocre talent, none of whom ever bridged the gap to yesteryear or came close to being tabbed an All-American, until Pete Carroll took the program to a whole other level.

3. Penn State

The Flag-Bearer –
Curt Warner
The Ensemble –
Lydell Mitchell, Franco Harris, John Cappelletti, Matt Suhey, Larry Johnson,  Richie Anderson, Ki-Jana Carter, Blair Thomas, Curtis Enis, D.J. Dozier, Tony Hunt, Sam Gash, Charlie Pittman, Booker Moore, Gary Brown, Steve Smith and Mike Guman

Before Larry Johnson, it had been well-documented that Penn State’s recent history with first round draft choices has been horrid. Dozier, Thomas, Carter, Enis.  Flop, flop, unfair flop, flop. Injuries have been a factor, but that makes each no less of a colossal bust. Still, all that can’t diminish what that quartet accomplished in State College.  Nor does it take away from the fact that ten Lions have been plucked in the first round draft since 1972, eight were selected to someone’s All-American squad, Cappelletti won the 1973 Heisman Trophy, Harris is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame or Johnson ran for more 2,000 yards in 2002.  The point being that despite all the bad press, few programs have spawned more top backs the last 40 years.  

4. Miami

The Flag-Bearer –
Edgerring James
The Ensemble – Chuck Foreman, O.J. Anderson, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Alonzo Highsmith, Cleveland Gary, James Jackson, Stephen McGuire, Melvin Bratton, Donnell Bennett, Danyell Ferguson, Frank Gore and Najeh Davenport

Quarterback U.  Wide Receiver U.  Tight End U.  Running back U.? Miami has had so much talent at the other skill positions, it’s easy to forget just how effective their backs have been over the years.  They’ve had power-speed tailbacks like James, Portis and McGahee, big and nimble fullbacks in the mold of Highsmith and Gary and back-in-the-day stalwarts like Foreman and Anderson, both of whom played in the Super Bowl and multiple Pro Bowls. Portis is currently one of the best pure runners in the NFL, a claim McGahee was close to reaching at one point.      

5. Auburn

The Flag Bearer –
Bo Jackson
The Ensemble – James Brooks, Stephen Davis, Joe Cribbs, William Andrews, Brent Fullwood, Carnell Williams, Rudi Johnson, Lionel James, James Bostic, James Joseph, Tony Richardson, Fred Beasley and Ronnie Brown

The Tigers had two backs taken in the top five of the 2005 NFL Draft with Williams and Brown combining forces for terrific careers, while Brandon Jacobs was part of the rotation for a while before transferring to Southern Illinois. Over the past three decades, Auburn has had little trouble attracting similar quality to the Plains. None was more complete than Jackson, who won the 1985 Heisman Trophy before an ill-fated decision to play professional baseball and a degenerative hip condition kept him from reaching his full potential. Fullwood stepped in for Jackson in 1986 and promptly responded with an All-American season. Brooks, Davis, Cribbs and Andrews have each run for at least 1,000 yards three times and been named to the Pro Bowl team at least twice during their NFL careers. Johnson created a strong career for the Cincinnati Bengals. 

6. Texas

The Flag-Bearer –
Earl Campbell
The Ensemble – Ricky Williams, Eric Metcalf, Jamaal Charles, Cedric Benson, Roosevelt Leaks, Priest Holmes, Chris Gilbert, Hodges Mitchell, Jim Bertelsen, Steve Worster, A.J. Jones and Ted Koy

The Horns open as emphatically as any other program, offsetting a pedestrian stable of backs between Heisman winners, Campbell and Williams. The Tyler Rose set the standard, bulldozing a path to the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Williams was as good as any back that preceded him, and had a war chest of records, 21 NCAA and 46 school marks, to back it up.  Benson filled Williams’ cleats admirably in Austin, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in each of his four seasons and winning the Doak Walker Award in 2004.  Leaks was an All-American fullback in 1973 before moving on to a nine-year NFL career. If an All-time Undrafted Rookie Free Agent team existed, Holmes would be its starting back after making the unlikely leap from college anonymity to NFL super-stardom.  The advent of the wishbone in the late 1960s made stars out of Gilbert, Bertelsen and Worster, and UT to national powerhouse.

7. Nebraska

The Flag-Bearer –
Roger Craig
The Ensemble –
Ahman Green, Mike Rozier, Tom Rathman, Jeff Kinney, I.M. Hipp, Lawrence Phillips, Calvin Jones, Keith Jones, Rick Berns, Andra Franklin, Jarvis Redwine, Joel Mackovicka, Ken Clark, Cory Schlesinger, Dan Alexander, Correll Buckhalter, Derek Brown, Doug Dubose, Judd Davies and Joe Orduna

Not only can the Huskers boast a plethora of game-breaking I-backs, but they’ve also grown their share of snot-knocking fullbacks as if they were ears of corn.  Players like Craig, Green, Rozier and Phillips picked up the yards and the post-season accolades, but it was Rathman, Mackovicka, Franklin and Schlesinger who were paving the way and epitomizing the punishing Nebraska running game. Rozier won the 1983 Heisman in a walk after running for a school-record 2,148 yards and 29 touchdowns. Hipp, perhaps the best known of Nebraska’s many successful walk-ons, became an overnight celebrity in the 1970s. Craig played in four Pro Bowls, while Green has already received three invites after just six years in the NFL.

8. Oklahoma

The Flag-Bearer –
Billy Sims
The Ensemble –
Greg Pruitt, Joe Washington, Steve Owens, Adrian Peterson, Quentin Griffin, Elvis Peacock, Adrian Peterson, Kenny King, Stanley Wilson, De’Mond Parker, Spencer Tillman, Steve Sewell, Mike Gaddis, Lydell Carr, Marcus Dupree and Jerald Moore

From 1969-1979, no program east of Los Angeles had more electrifying backs than the Sooners. Owens, Pruitt, Washington and Sims picked up a pair of Heisman Trophies and seven All-American honors between them.  All four had productive NFL careers, Sims’ ending prematurely in 1984 from a serious knee injury. In 2002, Griffin fell just 12 yards short of Sims’ single-season rushing record of 1,896 yards, usually saving his best efforts for the Sooners’ biggest games. After his highly acclaimed freshman debut, Peterson was capable of challenging Sims for top honors, and will get it if he keeps up with his NFL production. Dupree had a breathtaking combination of size and speed, but he wound up being just a peculiar footnote in the school’s storied history.  After whetting appetites as a freshman, he transferred to Southern Miss before imploding with the USFL’s New Orleans Breakers.

9. Georgia

The Flag-Bearer –
Herschel Walker
The Ensemble –
Garrison Hearst, Knowshon Moreno, Rodney Hampton, Terrell Davis, Tim Worley, Lars Tate, Robert Edwards, Musa Smith, Willie McClendon, Mack Strong, Olandis Gary and Larry Bowie

The Dawgs’ excellence here can be explained from three different angles: Walker was simply one of the most dominant backs in the history of college football. In 1980, he redefined the limits for a freshman, and when he was done in 1982, he held one Heisman, 11 NCAA records, 16 SEC records and 41 school marks. Tate, Worley, Hampton and Hearst parlayed 1,000-yard seasons into being high NFL draft choices. Hearst, in particular, had a terrific career in Athens, which was capped in 1992 with the Doak Walker Award. And Davis, Strong and Gary went from lightly regarded pro prospects to prominent NFL contributors.  No one was better than Davis from 1996-1998.  Edwards appeared headed for similar glory before a freak 1999 injury required major reconstructive surgery and tragically halted a promising career.

10. Florida

The Flag-Bearer
– Emmitt Smith
The Ensemble Neal Anderson, Errict Rhett, Fred Taylor, John L. Williams, James Jones, Larry Smith, Jimmy Dubose, Lorenzo Hampton, Earnest Graham and Terry Jackson

For a school that’s been synonymous with the passing game for so many years, Florida has done a good job of recruiting and developing big-time backs. Emmitt Smith had a brilliant three-year career in Gainesville before going on to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. He, Larry Smith and Rhett were named All-American in their final seasons. Eight of the aforementioned Gators have been chosen in the first round of the NFL Draft, including Jones and Williams, two of the most versatile fullbacks of their era.  Anderson is one of the more underrated backs of the past 20 years. All he did after establishing the Gator rushing mark in 1985 was fill the shoes of legendary Walter Payton in Chicago by playing in four straight Pro Bowls.        

Honorable U.

Texas A&M

The Flag-Bearer –
Curtis Dickey
The Ensemble – Johnny Hector, Roger Vick, Greg Hill, Rod Bernstine, Mike Goodson, Jorvoskie Lane, Dante Hall, Bubba Bean, Anthony Toney, Earnest Jackson, Darren Lewis, Rodney Thomas, Leeland McElroy, Larry Stegent, Keith Woodside, Jamar Toombs, Courtney Lewis and Thomas Sanders

When A&M won a ton of games since the mid-1970s, it was rarely on the arm of one of its quarterbacks.  The Aggies success came from the Wrecking Crew and a running game that was incapable of going two straight seasons without an all-conference back.  The NFL was obviously paying attention; Stegent, Bean, Dickey, Vick, Bernstine and Hill were all first-round picks. 


The Flag-Bearer –
Jamal Lewis
The Ensemble
– Travis Henry, Charlie Garner, Reggie Cobb, James Stewart, Travis Stephens, Tony Thompson, Jay Graham, Johnnie Jones, Chuck Webb, Cedric Houston, Arian Foster and Aaron Hayden

Lewis, Henry and Garner have had huge seasons in the NFL since 2000, lifting the Vols to the brink of the Top 10.  Stephens was the programs’ first All-American at running back in decades.   


The Flag-Bearer
Anthony Thomas
The Ensemble –
Tyrone Wheatley, Mike Hart, Tim Biakabatuka, Jamie Morris, Chris Perry, Rob Lytle, Butch Woolfolk, Bill Taylor, Leroy Hoard, Gordon Bell, Harlan Huckleby, B.J Askew, Ed Shuttlesworth, Jarrod Bunch, Jon Vaughn and Michael Hart

Penn State gets justifiably dogged for this, but folks tend to forget how Michigan backs have underachieved once they’ve gotten out from behind the shadows of those hulking Wolverine linemen.

Oklahoma State

The Flag-Bearer –
Barry Sanders
The Ensemble – Thurman Thomas, Terry Miller, Ernest Anderson, Kendall Hunter, Tatum Bell, Gerald Hudson, Vernand Morency, David Thompson, Keith Toston and Reggie White

With names like Sanders, Thomas and Miller in their past, it’s impossible not to give mention to the Cowboys. If the period in question is 1977-1990, OSU is a lock for one of the top five spots.

Notre Dame

The Flag-Bearer –
Jerome Bettis
The Ensemble –
Allen Pinkett, Ricky Watters, Vagas Ferguson, Autry Denson, Greg Bell, Jerome Heavens, Reggie Brooks, Julius Jones, Marc Edwards, Anthony Johnson and Rodney Culver

The 1979 backfield of Ferguson, Heavens and Joe Montana ranks as one of the best in school history. Bettis was one of the NFL's all-time leading rushers and a Super Bowl winner.